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Swimmer’s Shoulder: Signs, Symptoms, and Prevention

Swimmer’s shoulder is the name used to describe one of the most common injuries that affects swimmers of all ages and ability levels.  Due to the repetitive overhead motion of the competitive swimming stroke, participants are at a significantly higher risk to develop shoulder pain.  It is estimated that competitive swimmers can take as many as one million strokes per arm, per year.  With all that strenuous work on the shoulders, overuse injuries that lead to pain are extremely common.  According to some reports, 50-75% of all swimmers will experience episodes of shoulder pain that causes them to either miss a workout or stop swimming all together.

One of the most common signs of swimmer’s shoulder is pain along the back of the shoulder that feels deeply set in the muscles.  Occasionally pain is also felt along the front of the shoulder.  The pain is increased with repetitive overhead reaching which includes swimming.  The longer a person swims during a session, the worse the pain will become.   This increased pain is termed shoulder tendonitis which is inflammation in the tendons of the supraspinatus and biceps muscles of the shoulder.  Other symptoms of swimmer’s shoulder include a decrease in shoulder range of motion compared to the other shoulder, a decrease in strength compared to the other shoulder, and possibly increased joint laxity compared to the other shoulder.  All these signs can be easily checked and addressed by swim coaches, parents, swimmers, and medical professionals.

With the high likelihood of injury and the pain associated with swimmer’s shoulder it is important to be aware of the ways to prevent this injury from occurring and what to do if it does happen to you.  The easiest and possibly most effective treatment is rest.  Take time off from swimming to allow the inflammation to settle down before returning to the pool.  While resting, it is important to use ice to aid in decreasing inflammation of the tendons in the shoulder.  You can also decrease the amount of overhead swimming done and perform a kick only program until the symptoms decrease.  Another alternative is to modify the stroke mechanics of the swimmer to emphasize proper technique with each stroke to eliminate the component that is causing the pain.

If the above options do not work, it may be necessary to seek the advice of a doctor to try a more aggressive approach to treatment that may include medications, physical therapy, strength or dryland training, or possibly surgical repair of the tendons if the problem does not improve.

With proper assessment and a little information about swimmer’s shoulder, it is easy to deal with this common injury.  The most important factor to consider is that swimming is a lifelong sport that can help keep you healthy and fit.  With proper attention and care, swimmer’s shoulder is easily fixable and does not have to keep you out of the pool.